SEC Tournament Preview
After a crazy regular season that saw the LSU Tigers come out on top, the 2019 SEC Tournament tips off Wednesday, March 13 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
If the regular season was any sort of indication, we could be in for a wild, unpredictable ride. The SEC is arguably as deep as it’s ever been, and the conference has at least seven teams set to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite finishing third in the regular season, Kentucky is once again the favorite to win the tournament, as they make a push for a No. 1 seed in March Madness. The Wildcats have not lost an SEC Tournament game since the 2014 final against Florida, and they closed out the regular season by winning 16 of their last 18 games.
Kentucky has one of the best backcourts in all of college basketball, featuring freshmen Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans. In addition, star senior forward Reid Travis may return after missing the past five games because of a sprained right knee. The Wildcats will play the winner of Alabama/Ole Miss on Friday, March 15. This could turn out to be a good game, as Kentucky lost to Alabama 77-75 on Jan. 5, and the Wildcats only beat Ole Miss by four on March 5.
LSU earned the No. 1 seed after winning the SEC regular season title outright, but with an interim head coach and what is likely to be a lot of outside noise surrounding the allegations of breaking NCAA recruiting rules, the Tigers could be in for an uphill battle. Former head coach Will Wade was suspended last Friday amid an FBI wiretap investigation, and standout freshman guard Javonte Smart was forced to sit out in LSU’s regular season championship win over Vanderbilt. It is unknown whether or not either of them will be back with the team for the postseason.
Luckily for them, LSU swept its only two games against Kentucky and Tennessee this season and it benefits from not having to face either team until the title game. In addition, Naz Reid will return for the SEC Tournament this week. The freshman forward is averaging 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game for the Tigers. LSU will face the winner of Arkansas/Florida on Friday, two teams that they split the regular season series with.
After spending a good portion of the regular season as the top-ranked team in the country, Tennessee closed out the last few weeks with mixed results. The Volunteers will play either Texas A&M, Vanderbilt or Mississippi State, three teams that they swept this year. If the Volunteers win their first game, they will likely face Kentucky in the semifinals.
Tennessee will need big performances from junior guard Jordan Bone, senior guard Admiral Schofield and repeat SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams if they want to break out of their mediocre form and take down Kentucky. Whoever wins this game may very well go on to win the whole tournament and claim a No. 1 seed in March Madness.
Don’t count out fifth-seeded Auburn just yet. The Tigers have won six of their last seven, including an 84-80 win over Tennessee to close out the year, and they landed a favorable draw in the tournament. Auburn should be able to handle the winner of Missouri/Georgia fairly easily, and if they can beat South Carolina in the quarterfinals, the Tigers will be a dark-horse favorite to win it all. Just like LSU, Auburn won’t have to worry about facing Kentucky or Tennessee until the championship game if they make it that far.
Similar to Auburn, Mississippi State could play spoiler to some of the bigger names in the tournament. Led by senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, who averages 18.5 points per game, the Bulldogs have the talent to make an impact. On the other hand, their inconsistency and draw in the tournament could come back to haunt them. Not only would they have to win four games in four days, but the Bulldogs path to an SEC title is brutal.
Freshman guard A.J. Lawson returns for the first time since spraining his ankle against Alabama on February 26, but it likely won’t be enough for South Carolina. The Gamecocks have not played well away from Columbia, posting a 5-9 record in away/neutral site games. South Carolina has also not played a ranked team since losing 85-73 to Tennessee on February 13, something you don’t like to see for a team that faces the toughest path of the top four seeds in Nashville.
Arkansas and Florida have both been unpredictable as of late. The Razorbacks had a six-game losing streak followed by a three-game winning streak to finish the regular season. Similarly, Florida was on a five-game winning streak before things went south, losing its last three. Florida won the head-to-head matchup on Jan. 9, but this game is looking like a toss-up. For either team to make the NCAA Tournament, a win over LSU in the quarterfinals is critical.
Other than the possible exception of either Arkansas or Florida, it would be shocking to see any of the remaining teams reach the semifinals. Ole Miss faces Alabama in their first game, a team that destroyed them earlier this season, 74-53. Alabama has been dangerous in must-win games and they’ve been competitive against top SEC teams, but they would have to beat Kentucky again if they want to play in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless of who wins this game, expect to see a second-round exit at the hands of the Wildcats.
The first-round games on Wednesday showcases four teams that have little to no chance of even making the quarterfinals. Missouri’s second half of the season has been full of losses, but they should be favored when they go up against a Georgia team that has lost 15 of its last 17. Meanwhile, Texas A&M faces a Vanderbilt team that went 0-18 in the SEC this season. Don’t look for any of these teams to go far in the tournament.
With Selection Sunday right around the corner, this is the last chance for teams to make their mark on the selection committee. Anything can happen in college basketball, and this is shaping up to be a particularly memorable SEC Tournament. The race for the SEC regular season title is over, but the postseason fun is just getting started.
Championship game: Tennessee vs. Auburn
Matthew Black is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email MatthewCBlack20@gmail.com.